Friday, December 13, 2013

Transforming Grief into Action

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

I was looking through boxes and boxes of old photographs, not just for fun, but as part of a larger project of bringing to fruition the many years of effort my mother had put into writing her memoir. She never finished the project, now she is gone, and the Holy One of Blessing is breathing down my back and leaving me no choice but to finish the work she had so intensely devoted so much of her time to for so many years. 

My mother was a master photographer, an artist through and through, and the best of her work speaks deeply what words cannot convey. She knew she was a gifted artist, but she was never able to admit that she was also a gifted writer. She tells the story of her life – her unusual childhood with many long trips into the wilderness and to remote places of the world, her family's history, her college years, her emotional breakdowns and hospitalizations, her learning, always, always her learning, her teaching, and then her poetry and her philosophy, and at the end, her old age – all of this she tells with skill and wisdom and writing both adept and beautiful. And interspersed throughout her text are her photographs, taken mainly in the second half of her life as she slowly and painfully learned how to live in this world, but also from her youth. Also included are photographs take by her father on his many trips around the world, some from before the turn of the 20th century. 

But it is not the exquisite photographs of my mother’s later years that strike me this particular day. Rather, it is the many photographs from my childhood home in rural southwestern Wisconsin. My father was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and when I was seven years old, my parents bought an old farmhouse and part of a farm – 70 acres – half an hour west of the University. There I spent my formative years, there I lived with my mother’s breakdowns and extended hospitalizations in the psychiatric ward of one or the other of the Madison hospitals, and there I lived close to and fell in love with the land. 
So much of my childhood was spent outdoors! In grade school, I often walked home with my brother or one or more of the neighbor children, frequently pausing at the culvert over the stream to search for tadpoles and other signs of life. With a neighbor, a brother, a parent, or a friend, and frequently happily by myself, we explored every nook and cranny of our 70 acres, and often went further afield into the neighbors’ land as well. We sledded and tobogganed down hills, between trees, and over mounds of snow that sent us flying. We raised a variety of animals – mine were the chickens and the goats. 

We played in the barn, the loft sometimes full of hay, sometimes empty. We played in the neighbor’s barn and beside and in their pond. We watched the storms roll up the valley. We climbed to the top of the windmill, no longer functioning, its pump having been wired for electricity. We fashioned a make-believe home on a tiny island in the stream. We waded the stream in search of pretty stones and water striders. We examined and identified flowers. We gardened. We opened our home for walks, wood-cutting, hearty food, and fellowship. We struggled to get out of our driveway during snowy winters. We lived close to the land.
As I thumbed through picture after picture from my years on this land, longing and grief welled in my heart, and I felt tears in my eyes. How I miss that close connection to the Earth! And then, as the days went on, and I realized that I could not functionally remain in that place of grief for long, I began to understand. I began to understand that it is the deep love of the land that developed in me during my childhood and young adulthood that fuels the fires of so much of what I am passionate about in my later adulthood: Ma’yan Tikvah – a vehicle for praying outdoors with others; Wayland Walks – a program designed to get people outdoors onto the trails in our own community; working on climate campaigns – I do so desperately want for our children to inherit the Earth. 

Those photographs helped me better understand, they helped me see the depth of my passion and my commitment to the Earth. They helped me better understand why I am pushing forward with all that is closest to my heart. They helped me better understand just why the things I do are so close to my heart. 

I think of Aldo Leopold, who spent his most famous years in Wisconsin, his land ethic for our time, and the efforts of the Aldo Leopold Foundation to keep his legacy alive. Closer to home, I read Changes to the Land: Four Scenarios of the Future of the Massachusetts Landscape, and I know that although there is hope, there is also a recognition that so many of the decisions we make today will determine whether or not it will be possible for future generations to have even a taste of the experiences I had as a child. Looking back on my mother’s life, I know she must have thought something very similar, I know she mourned the possibility of experiencing the places she had cherished in the same way that she had. And when I consider the impact of climate change, the urgency of the issues regarding our planet can set my heart to racing and disturb my sleep at night.

One Earth, and only one. That is all we have. What will we pass on to future generations? The answer is up to us, to you and to me. We are the ones who make the decisions that determine the future. And so I continue to do the work I do, each passing year with a greater sense of urgency. This is how I channel my grief. This is how I assuage my guilt. This is how I keep my head and my heart above water and maintain the faith needed to go forward day by day.

 I invite you to join me and/or others in doing the passionate work l’ovdah u’l’shomrah, to serve and to protect (Gen. 2:15) this One Earth that is sacred to us all, crucial to our physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing, and threatened by the very ones who depend upon it.

 May we find the strength and the courage and the fortitude to truly guard and preserve this land and all that lives upon it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hanukkah Day 8 - Treasuring Grief and Moving Forward with Peace

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

And so we arrive at the last night of Hanukkah, we fill the hanukkiah with candles, eight candles for eight nights, plus the shamash, or helper candle. Once again we kindle the shamash, and then we kindle all of these eight candles. Our homes and our hearts fill with the light from so many candles. Shining together, the light of each individual candle multiplies and is magnified by the others around it; "Many candles can be kindled from one candle without diminishment;" (Sifre B'haalot'kha 93) after saying one prayer, another is always available from the same place from which the first one came. An eternity exists, of which we can touch one tiny corner.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity
Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action
Hanukkah Day 4 - Diminishing Despair and Growing Trust and Faith
Hanukkah Day 5 - Understanding Anger and Cultivating Compassion, Contentment, and Joy
Hanukkah Day 6 - Resisting Jealousy and Strengthening Gratitude
Hanukkah Day 7 - Healing Hurts and Promoting Well-being
Hanukkah Day 8 - Treasuring Grief and Moving Forward with Peace

Grief - we all experience it. We experience grief when we lose someone, when we lose some thing, when we lose an ability, when we lose a relationship, when we lose a hope, when we lose a vision of the future, when we lose a piece of the Earth - the pathways to grief are many and varied.

What do we do with our grief? The answers are as varied as our countenances. Perhaps we should treasure our grief, for our grief is a great teacher. It is sacred, for out of our grief grows a sense of peace. We understand as we grieve that we can deal with loss. We learn our strength. We gain insight into what it means to be human. And through our grieving we find our deepest gifts, and we find peace. 

HaMakom yinachem etchem, we say to those in mourning - May the Space/Place comfort you. "you are my lamp, Adonai; Adonai turns my darkness into light." (2 Sam 22:29) HaMakom and Adonai - two names for G!d. The "empty space within us as a result of our loss turns our darkness into light. "You, Adonai (i.e. Space), keep my lamp burning; my G!d turns my darkness into light." (Ps. 18:28) The Space within us keeps our lamp burning. The Space within us helps us move forward, turns our darkness into light, and brings us peace.

I invite you, on this last night of Hanukkah, to take yourself on a meditative journey. Envision - or gaze into - the eight lights of the hanukkiah. As you focus on these lights in reality or imagination, feel the light within you, and allow it to grow brighter. Pay attention to what it takes to allow this light to grow. Feel the light within you, sense it. How does it look? Is there action in it? Are there people in it? Keep the image of the eight lights of the hannukiah in sight, and feel the light within you. Then allow these lights within and without to meld together. Feel them all as one. Hold that feeling, and let this light shine in prayer for others, for all the Earth, for the Universe....And when you are ready, come back to the present, holding the sense of light with you.

"Don't let the light go out, it's lasted for so many years. Don't let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears." (Peter Yarrow)

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hanukkah Day 7 - Healing Hurts and Promoting Well-being

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Jewish tradition teaches that we are each to light our own hanukkiah - or Hanukkah candelabrum, and that even children should have their own. Lighting the hanukkiah is one of those mitzvot (commandments) that we can only do for ourselves. Unlike Shabbat candlelighting and many prayers, no one else can provide for us the fulfillment of this mitzvah. We can stand together, we can sing together, we can share in the radiance of the lights, but we must each do the lighting ourselves.

So it is, too, with healing our hurts. Others can love us and support us, stand beside us and encourage us, but we are the only ones, together with G!d, who can do the inner work that shifts our world toward wholeness.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity
Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action
Hanukkah Day 4 - Diminishing Despair and Growing Trust and Faith
Hanukkah Day 5 - Understanding Anger and Cultivating Compassion, Contentment, and Joy
Hanukkah Day 6 - Resisting Jealousy and Strengthening Gratitude
Hanukkah Day 7 - Healing Hurts and Promoting Well-being

All of us carry hurts. Some of them have been with us since childhood, others are fresh from a moment ago. In about the year 1230, Rabbi Hasdai wrote, "Light is perceived only out of darkness." Out of the darkness of our hurts, the light of learning and growing and becoming more compassionate can shine - we can be transformed. Our transformation is our healing, and one of the gifts it brings with it is the light that then shines forth to others who are struggling, bringing healing and a sense of well-being to them as well.

As the number of candles in our hanukkiah increases, so may the lights in the darkest recesses of our souls, in the places of our greatest hurt, may healing begin and grow brighter and brighter with each successive day. May it be so for us, and may it be so for our precious Earth.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah Day 6 - Resisting Jealousy and Strengthening Gratitude

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

A major aspect of the Hanukkah story is the message about identity - who was willing and ready to go with the flow of the surrounding culture and who was willing to fight in order to retain a Jewish identity and all that went with it. Hanukkah sends an enduring message about not assimilating. 

So many are the ways we can become assimilated into the mainstream culture! Some of them are indeed related to religious identity - being willing to maintain Shabbat on a weekly basis, even just a little bit, for example, requires dedication and determination, week after week. But there are other kinds of assimilation as well. A big one that comes to mind is regarding material goods. We live in a society that idolizes material wealth. The lights of the hanukkiah can be a reminder to hold onto our values and fight for them as though our lives depended on them, and when we think about climate change and the degradation of the environment, even if our life doesn't depend on what we do, the lives of our children and grandchildren just might.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity
Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action
Hanukkah Day 4 - Diminishing Despair and Growing Trust and Faith
Hanukkah Day 5 - Understanding Anger and Cultivating Compassion, Contentment, and Joy
Hanukkah Day 6 - Resisting Jealousy and Strengthening Gratitude

I often think that the hardest of Asseret HaDibrot - the Ten Utterances, or Ten Commandments - to fulfill is to not covet. I suspect that you, like me, know you will never murder anyone, but you may also be like me in another way, for I know that I often covet, I am on occasion jealous; sometimes I just wish had something someone else has. 

Refusing to become assimilated to materialism means resisting jealousy and desire for material goods. But I find that often (though not always) what I covet it isn't a phone or a car or a piece of clothing. It is more likely a gift, either innate or earned - physical strength, courage, knowledge, patience, the ability to let things roll off one's back, and so on. I wish I had the fortitude and strength I see in others that would allow me to live closer to the Earth and do more than I do for my family and my friends and our planet.

So I gaze at the lights on this sixth night of Hanukkah and I pray, for all of us, "Holy One, may it be Your will to place us on the side of light." (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a) May we feel gratitude and not jealousy. May we understand how much more we have than so many others. May we count our blessings every day. May we become aware of and acknowledge the many gifts we hold within us and we receive every day. May light fill our hearts and our minds and our souls, and drive out the darkness.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah! 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hanukkah Day 5 - Understanding Anger and Cultivating Compassion, Contentment, and Joy

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Another aspect of the observance of Hanukkah is that the lights from the hanukkiah are considered sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b) In other words, we shouldn't sit in an otherwise darkened room and read by the light of the candles from the hanukkiah.

We are not to make "ordinary use" of the candles. We must instead make extra-ordinary use of them. We must use them in ways that bring something new and different into our lives and our souls. We must gaze at them with the wondrous eyes of a child and allow the miracle of their light to pierce to the essential tiny point of light within our souls that is never obliterated, no matter how dark our days may seem, that spark of the Divine that exists in each of us. And when the outer light touches the inner light, then the fires of passion and energy and renewal will burn brightly within us and power us forward into the light of the day.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity
Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action
Hanukkah Day 4 - Diminishing Despair and Growing Trust and Faith
Hanukkah Day 5 - Understanding Anger and Cultivating Compassion, Contentment, and Joy

I'm not so sure what the opposite of anger is. One clear possibility - according to at least one dictionary - is "calm". But I think the answer is more complex than simply a measure of our state of being. Yes, in a given situation we may be either angry or calm (among other possibilities), but I would say the important question here is, What is causing us to feel anger? What is triggering our anger? 

If we are able to pause and examine our inner world when something angers us, we may often discover that underneath the anger is hurt. We are hurt, perhaps by the injustice of a situation, perhaps by something that touches our vulnerability, perhaps because we feel threatened or accused, and our response - either by reflex or over time - is often anger. We may then respond by lashing out at someone or something, or we may hold the anger in or push it aside. Understanding why we are angry can help us transform our emotions so that we are able to not simply remain calm, but to experience other emotions instead, such as compassion, contentment, and even joy. 

In Proverbs we read, "The candle of G!d is the soul of a person." (20:27) Within us is a light that is connected to something so much greater than our individual self. When anger flashes through us, we tend to lose the sense of that inner light, that candle of G!d. As we hold onto ourselves and stand in the tension of a painful or otherwise difficult situation, maintaining our concentration and our balance, we can allow that inner light to guide us, pointing us in the direction of a response that will be not only constructive, but also filled with compassion, and as a result, we may end up feeling instead contentment, instead of anger, and perhaps even joy.

May the light of the Holy One burn ever brighter in your soul and bring you to places you never dreamed of reaching.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah Day 4 - Diminishing Despair and Growing Trust and Faith

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Jewish tradition teaches us to take our time when we recite a blessing before doing a mitzvah (commandment). "Time should be taken to pause and consider the kindness of G!d or the gift of a mitzvah opportunity in which one is about to be involved." (Mishnah Berurah, Siman 5:1)

On this fourth night of Hanukkah, we first conclude Shabbat with havdalah, the ritual separating Shabbat from the regular days of the week. Then, back in the world of everyday work and everyday actions of all kinds, we kindle the lights of Hanukkah. As soon as we return to busy mode, we are immediately asked to pause and remember the importance of the Mystery in our lives, the Mystery that brings light into our hearts and our souls, through all of Creation. Whether by day or by night, alone or with others, we best and most fully experience It when we take a moment to stop, breathe deeply, and notice all that is around us. 

Let us remember to pause as we light the Hanukkah candles on this Motzei Shabbat -- Saturday evening.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity
Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action
Hanukkah Day 4 - Diminishing Despair and Growing Trust and Faith

Despair is an easy emotion to experience. All we need to do is watch or read the news and consider the widespread personal and governmental violence that wracks our world, the millions of people who live in grinding poverty every day, the superstorms and droughts and heatwaves that remind us that climate change is ever more surely impacting the Earth and all that lives upon it, and we can easily sink into despair. Despair can also readily overcome us as a result of personal experiences - chronic or severe illness, family members suffering from substance abuse, financial hardships, work that is not fulfilling, losses of one sort or another, and so much more.

It takes trust and faith to overcome despair. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, who is known to have struggled with depression, teaches us, "Hanukkah is not just some celebration of miracles performed in the past...It is a guiding light for people from all walks of life, from all eras in time, to see through the darkness of their personal lives and to become part of history...It is also the knowledge that G!d is with us, even when we lose the battle."

There is faith and trust that G!d is with us, and that G!d will be with us, and that we will never be alone. But there is also something even more fundamental: just plain faith and just plain trust. Not trust or faith in anything, but as a state of being. Living with trust. Living with faith. It is a moment-by-moment experience. It is being in the now with confidence, security, and a sense of well being. It is setting despair aside and opening our hearts and minds to find new ways of being, new answers, new avenues. Some of us may attribute such feelings to faith and trust in G!d, while others of us may experience it differently. No matter how we describe it or to what we ascribe it, when we feel a sense of trust and faith in our hearts, it feels just right.

Shavua tov v'Chag Urim Samech - Have a good week, and Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

The rabbis of the Talmud were concerned that the miracle of Hanukkah be publicized, so the tradition grew up to put the hanukkiah (Hanukkah candelabrum) in the window, for all to see. But the family is also to gather together, each one lighting his or her own hanukkiah, in order to publicize the miracle inward, to the family.

The miracle of Hanukkah is two-fold, the victory of a small army fighting against a large army, and the burning of a small cruse of oil, enough for one night, for a whole eight nights.

The miracles of Hanukkah can be understood in very spiritual terms. First, remember that if you are a minority, if you are just a small group, that does not mean that you can't make a difference. So many of us who are passionate about causes often feel that our voices will never be heard. Hanukkah reminds us that it is possible for us to prevail, no matter what the odds.

The other thing for us to remember is that when we are worn out and tired, when we feel we can only go on for a little while longer, we should kindle the lights within us anyway, and we may be surprised. The ability to keep going may just be stretched from one day to eight, enough to bridge the gap between impossible and possible. And Shabbat is here to help us with that process.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity
Hanukkah Day 3 - Eviscerating Guilt by Responding with Action

Guilt is often a really useless feeling. We can so easily get stuck in guilt and really immobilized. Think about it. "I feel so guilty about....." Have you ever said this? It sounds so familiar to me, and the feelings associated with the words. It is so easy to sit and stew and wallow in our misery about what we did do or didn't do, and as a result be incapable of enjoying life at all.

The things about which I can start to feel guilty are so numerous! What about you? Do any of these ever start you feeling guilty?
  • Walking into a store and buying something, just about anything.  
  • Filling the gas tank.
  • Overeating.
  • Observing images of poverty.
  • Spending more than you can afford.
  • Turning on the heat in the fall earlier than at a younger age
Once you started feeling guilty, what did you do? Anything? If so - yasher koach, good for you! Doing something can get rid of guilt. Action can get rid of guilt. In some cases, we have done something to someone, and then an apology is a good place to start. But to whom do we apologize for heating our home and driving our car? For having a roof over our heads and enough to eat? Guilt related to the larger problems - the societal and cultural problems in which we participate - cannot be assuaged with an apology. And even an apology for a personal affront requires a follow-up change in behavior in order to be real. 

In essence, no matter what we feel guilty about, the best way to eviscerate it, to weaken it, to diminish it, is to act. Our action might not be directly related to what causes us to feel guilty (though in some cases, like overeating, the obvious solution is to eat less), but we can act nevertheless. Letters to our representatives about issues related to the environment or poverty are useful actions that can help lessen our feelings of guilt. Increasing our commitment to organizations working for causes about which we care, and feel guilty, by giving either of our funds or of our time, can lessen our feelings of guilt. Stepping forward and speaking up about the issues we care about, and being willing to put ourselves on the line can lessen our feelings of guilt. Changing the way we live so that our daily living aligns closer to our innermost values can lessen our feelings of guilt.

"Come let us walk in the light of the One." (Is. 2:5) As we light three candles this night before Shabbat begins, as we publicize the miracles both outwardly and inwardly, let us feel the lightness beginning to enter our souls as we let go of fear, greed, and guilt, and walk in the light with courage, generosity, and positive actions.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the rabbis discuss how to light the hanukkiah - the Hanukkah candelabrum. The famous sages Hillel and Shammai disagree as to whether we should start with eight candles and day by day diminish the number we light until on the last day of Hanukkah there is only one candle (plus the shamash, or helper candle) burning, which is the view of Shammai, or, if we should start with one (plus the shamash) and add a new candle each night until we have eight (a total of nine with the shamash) burning on the last night.

We all know that Hillel won that argument (along with a lot of others). His point was -- and it is a point that is reiterated in other places in the Talmud -- that we should only increase in holiness, and never decrease. In our efforts this Hanukkah season to follow Rebbe Nachman's dictum (see Hanukkah Day 1) and to ignite our souls, we are kindling an additional spiritual "candle" each night, with the hope that the increasing number of "lights" will help us increase the holiness in our lives.

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage
Hanukkah Day 2 - Acknowledging Greed and Encouraging Generosity

If you are anything like me, you probably don't normally think of yourself as greedy. In fact, I don't like to think that I am ever greedy. It feels really uncomfortable. I want to say, "No, that's not me! I'm not like the king in Rumplestiltskin. I'm not greedy."

But if I am going to be honest as I light the hanukkiah on this second night of Hanukkah, then I need to acknowledge the cultural / societal / national greed of which I am a part, in addition to whatever personal tendencies I may have at times to be greedy. 

Here are examples of questions we can ask ourselves and facts we must face:
  • How do I respond when there is "free" food or a generous spread of goodies available?
  • How often have I said, "I need...." when what I really mean is "I want"?
  • Humanity uses 2/3 of the fertile land available on Earth.
  • The United States has about 4% of the world's population and emits about 25% of the total global greenhouse gases.
What causes us to feel and to believe that we need so much? 

Fear may be one factor, fear of being hungry, or cold, or lonely, fear of being different, fear of humiliation or embarrassment, fear of feeling or being inadequate, and so many other fears. Some of our "need" may come from external social and cultural pressures of which we have no conscious awareness. Some of it may come from a simple biological desire to have our physical needs met. Some may come from insecurity..., and so on.

Whatever the source of our greed, we can only combat it if we acknowledge that it exists. It takes humility to acknowledge such an unpleasant emotion.

Once acknowledged, if we want to light a candle to dispel the darkness of greed from our lives, we can encourage ourselves to be both humble and generous. In the very beginning of the Torah, Genesis 1:3, we read, "Let there be light." With each deed of generosity, we bring light into our hearts and into the world. Think about it for a moment -- how different would your day look if you examined every deed and every act from the point of view of greed versus generosity? It is a lot to ask of ourselves, but on the second night of Hanukkah, as we light the second candle, the candle of generosity, let us try, for these next 24 hours, to pay attention to just how greedy or how generous we are. And then, let us ask for G!d's help to shift the balance in our lives further away from greed and closer to generosity, to other human beings, to other living things, to the Earth, to the future, to the Universe, and to all that we cannot understand.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen 

This week's Torah portion is Miketz -- we are smack dab in the middle of the Joseph story, a sure sign that Hanukkah will soon begin, as we always read this portion during Hanukkah. 

In addition, this week's Shabbat candle-lighting time is almost as early as it gets (next week will be one minute earlier), even though the actual shortest day of the year is weeks away. 

It is a dark time of year. There can easily be much darkness in our hearts at this time -- violence, corruption, climate change, ecological degradation, along with the bumps both large and small of our personal lives -- all of these and more impact us even when they are not at the forefront of our minds, and when the sun sets early and the nights are long, doubts, worries, fears, and uncertainties are all the more likely to settle in our hearts. 

In recognition of our very human and not-at-all unique need to kindle lights to dispel the darkness, we celebrate Hanukkah. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav charges us to claim the spiritual power of Hanukkah, each of us for ourselves: "Kindle your own candle. Ignite your soul. Hanukkah is your story." 

And so, as you kindle the lights of your candles each night, I invite you to take Rebbe Nachman's charge seriously and to find new layers of all that is good and pure and sacred within your heart and soul. As you do so, I offer you companions on your journey, eight spiritual "candles", one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. I invite you to read, to absorb, to comment, and to share with others. 

Hanukkah Day 1 - Dispelling Fear and Finding Courage

It takes but one tiny candle to dispel the darkness. It takes but one ounce of courage to dispel the fear.

Fear -- sometimes our heart races, sometimes we panic, sometimes we are fully aware of our fear. Confronting a co-worker, boss, or family member about hurts or injustices, sometimes we just hold it all in and remain silent, fearful of the consequences of speaking out. Crossing a high narrow bridge over a deep chasm, bungee jumping, or walking the highwire, perhaps we just avoid such activities rather than put ourselves in a scary situation. Acknowledging that a loved one is dying, that our air and water and soil are filled with toxins, or that climate change is real and is going to change every aspect of our lives, often we refuse to face the facts before us out of fear that we cannot handle the truth.

On this first night of Hanukkah, may we gather together to light a candle of courage and dispel the darkness of fear. May the powerful light of this one candle light up our hearts and our lives, allowing us to see, to feel, and to experience the courage emanating forth from it - the courage to speak up, the courage to act, the courage to acknowledge hard truths and move into an unknown future, the courage to remember in the depths of our hearts the words of the psalmist: Adonai ohri v'yish'ee, Adonai is my light and my salvation (Ps. 27:1), to put ourselves into G!d's hands and to trust that we will find our way forward.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - Shana Tova

Photos by Gabi Mezger
Words by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

G!d made a promise never to destroy the world again. We see that promise in every rainbow that arcs across the sky. We see it, too, in rainbows all around us. 

G!d had the power to make the waters of the flood recede. We have no such power. May we make a promise never to destroy the world, not even once.

To keep such a promise requires us to notice every petal of every flower, every color of every hue, every detail of our lives and of the world around us. May we begin with ourselves, our own hearts, and build therein rainbows of promise. May we, during the Days of Awe, find the strength to save ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world, one petal at a time.

Shana tovah - May your New Year be filled with joy and blessings, and may you each and every day, remember the rainbow that we must build.
Gabi Mezger is retired and enjoys photography, reading, beading, and travel. She serves as the cantorial soloist for Ma'yan Tikvah.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (ARJ '05) is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Earth Etude for Elul 28 - I Am My Beloved and My Beloved Is Me

by Daniel Kieval

I have a friend who reads people's auras. He sees all sorts of colors like green & red & purple. He says anyone can do it. All it takes is forgetting everything you think you know & just looking. I've tried it & even though I haven't seen any colors yet, everyone I meet looks so beautiful when I stop knowing everything, that it's pretty hard to go back to the old way.
                                “Beautiful People” by Brian Andreas

Such is the mysterious beauty of our world that when we observe any part of it deeply we have no choice but to fall in love.

Many naturalists and nature educators will say that the best way to develop a connection with the Earth is to practice what is called a “Sit Spot.” Here’s how it works: Choose one place in the world and spend time there daily, at all times of day and night, in all weather, in all seasons. In your spot, sit in silence and focus fully on the world around you. As you learn to quiet your mind and let go of everything you think you know, you become open to receiving what nature is presenting to you in that moment. Over time you gain a deep sense of the patterns of life around your Sit Spot and, just maybe, you fall in love.

A personal connection with Earth is not something new we have to acquire. Every one of us has carried it in our bodies since the first Adam (human) was formed from the Adam-ah (earth). By turning all of our awareness to nature’s gifts, we come home again to that relationship which we’ve had all along.

In Elul, we focus on the process of teshuva – returning, coming home – through personal reflection and examination. What the Sit Spot is to the Earth, teshuva is to our own souls. We visit our “Sit Spot of the Self” daily; we see what it’s like there in all weather and moods. We let go of what we think we know about ourselves and instead we quiet down and listen. We discover the subtle beauties of our inner ecology.

Our souls, like the Earth, have always been there waiting for us, but we lose touch with them as the clutter of everyday life fills up our heads. In Elul we visit our souls with devotion until we fall in love with ourselves again. That is what it means to do teshuva: to come back to our pure essential nature that is as unspoiled and good and true as every other primordial piece of Creation. Only after we’ve done this are we ready to face the infinite on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Spend time with yourself this Elul. Be quiet. Be curious. Be present. Let go of judgment and observe openly and honestly. In so doing, may you come home again to a loving relationship with the created Earth and your own perfect soul.

Daniel Kieval works as a Jewish environmental educator with Teva, a program of Hazon/Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

Earth Etude for Elul 27 - Sunrise Sunset – Evening the Frayed Edges of Our Lives

by Rabbi Jeff Foust

Sunrise and sunset are special liminal times calling forth awe and mindful awakening to spiritual realities we otherwise might totally miss. It’s no accident that the main traditional prayer times for Jews are sunrise and sunset.

This simple profound reality is especially moving me this year as I prepare for the Teshuvah/Realignment/Renewal work of Elul before Rosh HaShanah. I’ve been reflecting on a powerful liturgical adaptation by Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael of the opening evening prayer Ma’ariv Aravim. She calls it “Evening the Evenings”. It combines interpretive English with the traditional Hebrew. What especially moves me is the chorus: “Evening the evenings; evening the frayed edges of our lives; Ma’ariv Aravim…; amen.” The key for me is that “Ma’ariv Aravim” refers both to “The One Who brings on the evening” and to the Creator of the heavenly vaults of light and darkness (Aruv can a heavenly vault or a containing boundary) which almost come together at the time of sunrise and sunset (in Hebrew called “Bein HaArbayyim”/Between the Heavenly Vaults of Light and Darkness).

When I hear and experience “Evening the evenings” I experience the light of “Bein HaArbayyim” touching the shadows and ragged edges first between the heavenly vaults of day and night at sunset, and then touching all the shadowy dark constricted frayed places of the world, including in my own self and my entire bodyheartmindspirit. I actually tremble and shake in the original sense of “haredim” (the tremblers), but it feels good because I know that the path to teshuvah and renewal is in letting my frayed, shadowy dark place be evened out by G!D’s light and love.

With G!D’s help and our sincere efforts, may our Elul journeys be enlightening and renewing.

*If you would like to check out the full song see HTTP://WWW.CDBABY.COM/CD/RABBIGRR
It's also often sung Friday nights at Boston's B'nai Or.

Rabbi Jeff Foust is Jewish Chaplain and member of the interfaith Spiritual Life Center at Bentley University. He does pastoral care and counseling through the Jewish Chaplaincy Council, leads creative life cycle events and services, tutors youth and adults, and has a special interest in Kabbalah and embodied spirituality. He can be reached through his website or email

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Earth Etude for Elul 26 - Teshuvah and Eden

by Rabbi Robin Damsky 

I am sitting in my yard as I write this, amidst the din of cicadas singing their love songs to one another, with the wind lusciously blowing around the 93-degree day. Although hot, the garden is nevertheless my favorite place. To my left are the grapevines yielding their first crop of grapes. To my right is a series of raised beds forming a giant U: lettuces under their shade cover, two compost bins, onions, carrots and beets, turnips and daikon, broccoli and collards, peppered with kale plants in every available space, with companions of sweet alyssum to keep the aphids at bay.

There is the tomato jungle; I call it thus because picking the fruits takes me into their internal forest. Only one sunflower sprouted this year, but she is majestic. Near her is the peach tree, barely able to hold up her arms right now for the weight of her pearly orangey fruits. Surrounding her are mints – chocolate and orange, spearmint and peppermint, fennel, peas and beans and onto the baby fig tree with its first set of figs: twelve. Not bad for a first year crop, and on a tree that’s just over three feet high. Aah. I exhale at the grace that God provides through these food plants.

This is only one side of the yard. Last year I began the project of turning my yard into an organic, edible landscape. Culinary herbs, fruit and nut trees, medicinal herbs, fruit shrubs, and plants with edible parts such as rose hips, ferns and violets abound.  There are artichokes – Chicago’s not their normal habitat, but I’m giving them a shot. Abundant berries, winter squash, cucumbers and watermelons. And the Jewish connection: parsley, of course, hyssop and horseradish. It is a work in progress, but it is immensely fulfilling, a personal Eden.

Our tradition tells us that we were exiled from Eden to toil the soil, but I find that working the earth brings Eden. The sounds and smells, the growth and the creatures are all a piece of Eden. As a rabbi, the idea of a time when all life – human, animal and plant, can live together peaceably, is one of my main visions. The garden contains all the ingredients for that. It is a place where we learn respect, because we know the potential myriad of setbacks: weather, “pests,” soil conditions, to name a few. It is a place where we learn gratitude. How happy is the child that picks her homegrown carrot? The boy who chews on his first string bean that he planted himself?

That’s just the beginning. Sharing produce with the homeless is an important gift to give each season, through our local food pantry and homeless shelter. Bringing community members in to work the earth who need extra income helps those in need while teaching them about how to grow their own food. Simultaneously, we build community across all lines: religious, ethnic, racial, even across the generations. I have made some wonderful friends through the garden that I never would have met otherwise. And we also teach our children in the arenas of Judaism, nutrition, and sustainability.

What is teshuvah if not return? Are we not working to return to source – to God, to oneness, to wholeness with all of creation? The shofar rings out each day of Elul: Awake! Awake! Awaken to our work to create wholeness.

How interesting it is that the Messianic Age is the very vision of Eden. What better way, then, for us to do the work of the High Holy Days than to plant? We bring ourselves closer to God’s creation and advance the healing that pulls us a little closer to the Messianic Age. Plant and tend. A little Eden awaits you.

Shana tovah – A year of wholeness for all. 
Robin Damsky is the rabbi of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, IL, She is the proud mother of Sarah. In her spare time she promotes tikkun olam - repair of the world - through the garden.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Earth Etude for Elul 25 - Circling Home

by Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman

Turning, always turning
To every turn, a season
To every season, a spirit
To every spirit, a soul
To every soul, a home

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li
I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine
Elul pours forth a call

Turn as the earth
Around your sacred truth,
Hold to your center
           but move from your place.
from a new angle, Who You Are
And who you need to be

We are fiery emotions
We are waters of compassion
We are centered breath of life,
We are steady solid clay

An eternal breath wrapped in dust and light
always turning

Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman,MSW is the Founder and Director of Rimon Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality in Great Barrington, MA. She is a former psychotherapist and feng shui practitioner with a life-long interest in comparative religion and the creation of sacred space and sacred time.

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - The Humility of Rabbits

by Leora Mallach

I am an educational vegetable gardener, that is to say, I facilitate learning about food and grow vegetables for people to eat. Vegetable gardens don’t happen by chance, but are manicured and maintained on a regular basis. There is pre-season planning, worry and hope as things sprout, groups of students to program with, volunteers to direct and family picnics to coordinate.

When I first saw evidence of the rabbits over the winter I didn't totally understand the implications. Ever the optimist, I thought they could hang out in the ivy, frolic in the playground (once the pre-school kids left) and generally leave me and my vegetables alone. They could have their space, and I’d have mine.

And then they ate my pea shoots.

Planting continued on, and weeks later who was I to tell the 9th grade boys who relished in cutting back ivy that the cute little rabbits had eaten up all their hard work? The volunteer who had gotten so excited when she planted her first seeds, (A trio of Blue Lake, Cherokee Wax and Purple Queen beans) that she took a picture of the patch of soil, would she want to know that her beans were now mere colorful sticks?

I raised my fists at the rabbits. I cursed at them. I chased them. They shook their white bunny tails at me and scurried away.

I called the experts, some helpful and some not. Fencing would have to be dug 6 inches down- how would the beds still be accessible? Would they ruin the aesthetic of the space? Wait it out some said, once the plants are big enough, rabbits won’t want to eat them. An exterminator would use a gas chamber… uh, NO.

The advice I went with was to become a rabbit harasser. I sprinkled fox urine around the rabbit hole so they would think they were being stalked. I had friends bring over their dogs to “leave their scent” in the area. I sprinkled bovine blood granules on the beds next to the vegetables.

When I could take it no more- I bought Havaheart trap. The first morning when I went to go check the trap, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to find a rabbit inside. Although I had located a lovely new home (more then two miles away, by the water, it also included a bridge and a bench, in addition to a wide grassy area) I was nervous. If I hold their lives as sacred, their creation as an act of divinity, then shouldn't we be able to co-exist in teh garden together?

I often wonder what these rabbis are teaching me. I am still learning. In this time of teshuvah, of love, of renewal, of working toward our best selves, I am humbled by the rabbits.


Leora Mallach is the Co-Founder of Ganei Beantown and this is her third year running the organic vegetable garden at Temple Israel of Boston. When not harvesting cucumbers she can be found writing experiential education curriculum, hiking in the mountains, or being crafty.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - Adonai, Adonai

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Adonai, Adonai, G!d, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness and truth, showing compassion to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. (Ex. 34:6-7)

G!d speaks the Divine name twice! Wouldn't once be enough? Whose attention is G!d trying to reach?

The medieval commentator Rashi teaches that “Adonai” is G!d's attribute of compassion, and that the Divine Name is said once before a person sins and once after the person sins and repents. It’s a nice image. I think also about Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s understanding of the four letter tetragramaton as a breath that happens when we try to pronounce the unpronounceable name, and he refers to G!d as the Breath of Life. So, the Divine Name being spoken twice is sort of like G!d breathing deeply twice, one before we sin and once after we sin and repent, or, in the verse above, two deep breaths before naming the aspects of Divine mercy and forgiveness that are available to us.

Jewish tradition teaches that we are to walk in G!d’s ways. Accordingly, this means that we, too, need to have all the qualities of forgiveness listed in this verse. The compassion to a thousand generations might be tough for one individual, but at least we can try to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness and truth, and forgiving of other’s transgressions. And taking two deep breaths can help us just as much, or even more, as it can help G!d! If we breathe deeply, letting the air in and out, with conscious awareness that we are bringing into our bodies molecules that were released from some other organism or from the Earth, perhaps we can better manifest in ourselves these amazing Divine qualities.

Philosopher and nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore writes in The Pine Island Paradox: “if you sit still in the dark, breathing quietly, the world will come to life around you…and then you will understand: you are kin in a family of living things, aware in a world of awareness, alive in a world of lives, breathing as the shrimp breathe, as the kelp breathes, as the water breathes, as the alders breathe, the slow in and out. Except for argon and some nitrogen, every gas that enters your lungs was created by some living creature—oxygen by plankton, carbon dioxide by the hemlocks. Every breath you take weaves you into the fabric of life."

When we are confronted by a difficult situation with another person, if we breathe deeply and remember the water, the oxygen, the nitrogen; the rain, the oceans, the mountains; the rain forests, the deserts, the water’s edge; the frogs, the salamanders, the bacteria – if we in those two deep breathes can allow such images to pass through our minds, reminding ourselves that we are but one tiny part of the amazing web of life on this amazing planet, and that the Breath of Life sustains us all, perhaps we will find it easier to walk in G!d’s footsteps and to be merciful and forgiving. Perhaps we will be able to look more kindly at our neighbors and ourselves. Perhaps an abundance of goodness and truth will seep into our beings, and bring healing to us and to the Earth.

With all my heart and all my soul, I pray, may it be so. Amen. Selah.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (ARJ '05) is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA.